When I was 20, my two friends and I decided it would be hilarious to bop around the Sahara for a few days.
At the time, the three of us were studying Arabic in Morocco’s capital. So we took a train, then a bus, then a taxi (the only one in town, in fact) to a stucco building out in the sand where we snapped 700 posed photos of ourselves pouring tea.
In that stucco building we also met our desert guide. He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties, but no one really knows for sure. In fact, even he doesn’t know for sure.
We asked him. He shrugged and gave us a look. You would think that we had asked him what how many threads were in his hoodie: something absurdly numerical, inconsequential, irrelevant.
In his world, each day looks exactly like the previous one. There are no seasons to demarcate the passage of time and hardly any media to pick up the slack.*
*Seriously. In order to watch the semifinal of the world cup, we had to walk together to a nearby village that had, in its entirety, one television. The tiny cafe that owned it became so packed with people that the owner gave up on delivering to his customers and relegated himself to the kitchen in the back, sending out his 8-year-old son instead to slip among the throng with glasses of mint tea and sugar cubes.
I think about that guy every time I see someone (usually WIRED magazine) applaud an individual for their youth. I think about him every time I hear someone (usually in 1871) discuss somebody’s age as though it plays a crucial role in their contributions to society. I think about him when some VC outs with the “dirty secret” that any one over age 32 won’t get a look at their firm. I think about him every time people, and it does happen an awful lot in the tech community, talk about human beings as though they begin depreciating in value at puberty, like a new car does when it leaves the dealer’s lot.
Here’s the thing, though. I’ve met people who appreciate and readily entertain new ideas. Some of those people were 18, and some of those people were 70.
I have also met people who cannot and will not entertain any vision of reality that differs their own, tunnel-bound one. Some of these people were 18. Some of them were 70.
I have met people who behave much like infants, expecting the rest of the world to take care of them and make them feel loved. People who didn’t, and maybe couldn’t, understand the consequences of their actions on other people, or see any part of the world outside of their own very small bubble, or imagine that even what they could see became heavily distorted by their bubbles’ soapy walls. Infants, of course. And also people old enough to claim social security. People so oblivious that, when I suggested my concerns about the effects of my actions on other people, they encouraged me not to think about any of that.
Then there are people who have spent much of their lives figuring out how to take responsibility for their lives (and any privilege conferred thereupon). The youngest person I’ve ever met in this category was nine.
Maybe, when one considers probabilities, it makes sense to expect certain qualities to show up more often in certain age groups. Then again, when one considers probabilities, it doesn’t make sense to spend time investing thought, time, or money in someone else’s entrepreneurial venture anyway. I’m not saying don’t do that. I’m just pointing out that it’s sort of hypocritical to attempt to use probabilities about the general populace to drive one’s judgement of a vanishingly small sample set of individuals who, in getting their company (particularly a tech company) to succeed, are outliers and therefore by definition not in line with the data.
I used to worry a lot about how old I was compared to other people and what I was supposed to have achieved by my age in order to be successful. And it’s on my mind now because folks who think about this, I think, dwell on it especially at this time of year.
A friend pointed out to me last night that actually what people are dwelling on, at this time of year, is the gap between who they think they are and who they think they’re supposed to be.
And it’s not just with regard to “I’m supposed to have made X dollars and have Y businesses by now”—a result of putting youth on a pedestal in a way that, as you’ve probably already guessed, I consider to be complete and total bullshit. It can be other things too. My friend provided another example: we see images all around us of happy, warm, loving families, and if what we have is something we feel to be anything less than that, we thing we’ve missed out on something that everyone else has.
I’ve learned a lot of things in the past year, but the three most important lessons speak directly to this. I’m not saying I’ve mastered them myself, but I’m learning. The lessons are going to sound really familiar because we’ve all heard them a bazillion and three times before. So I’m also sharing the actual experience from this year that, for the first time, actually hammered each of them into my thick skull enough to make a dent. If they help, that’s fantastic. If you have stories of your own, that’s fantastic—we can make a collection!
I’ll shut up now. The lessons:
1. There is no such thing as a level playing field, so there’s no point comparing my path to someone else’s path. Instead, I can make a conscious effort to use all the experiences that have contributed to where I am, right now, to build the things that I want to be remembered for. And sometimes it takes more experience, and therefore more years of life, to build the things.
How I learned: well, as many of you know, I graduated college and packed my bags almost immediately for Miami. There my first real job quickly turned into a nightmare. I got fired three times (I will no longer use the word layoff, as a layoff actually technically means they intend to have you back. These were firings). I got almost run over by cars several times and actually run over twice. Someone brutally murdered a tree to steal my bicycle. My car was broken into eleven times. I had no friends and became thoroughly convinced that I was a whole helluva lot more useless than everyone had told me all my life. And I was sure that it had been the least productive year of my existence and the harbinger of even more unproductive years. Fast forward to this year: the anxieties and stressors from that year provided the foundation upon which a story was written. I couldn’t have written that story without the year that I believed to be utterly useless. Huh.
2. It’s worthwhile to stop paying any attention to just about all media sources. There are a choice few that cover the really hard things in the world, but that’s it.
How I learned: I worked at a nonprofit that focuses its research on transnational conflict and security threats. Inside that office, the news is not “Jessica Lopez whatever whatever and Kanye had a baby. Look at this 21 year old’s revolutionary new technology that empowers rich people to do rich people things from the convenience of their phones!”
The news in that office? “260 people dead in RoC. Mexican students revolt against government corruption, several go missing. Bolivia passes new laws targeting human trafficking.” So you spend four hours immersed in that, and then you walk outside to a food truck for lunch, and while you’re standing in line you hear people talking about celebrity bullshit and Silicon Valley, and you wonder if they have any idea how much the rest of the world absolutely does not give one single shit. How few people Silicon Valley’s golden child companies really affect, and how many people have so much bigger problems than filling their cavitated social circles with newsfeeds from celebrities who will never know them from Adam. And when you shut off that noise (and it really is just noise), you realize that there are a whole lot fewer people telling you how inadequate you are because you’re not listening to them. Huh.
3. If I lack human connection in my life, I’m not doomed to be that way forever. Sure, it might not be my blood family, but I can build a family-like situation if I’m flexible and willing to work at it.
How I learned: From living in giant houses in DC and Chicago. Seriously. In both situations, the housemates have become my on-site family. One doesn’t have to do it this way: meetup groups also work (the more often you’re seeing the people, in my experience, the better). And yeah, it’s not gonna be rainbows and roses all the time. But it isn’t that way with blood family either. And yeah, it’s a big change to be willing to get close to people that fast, and it creates a pretty high potential to get hurt. But it’s not deadly, and we get better at recovering. Huh.
I’m not saying any of this to pretend like I know anything: I don’t. I’m obviously a dunderheaded kid with too many pairs of shoes who should probably be studying right now. The reason I’m saying it is that this is what helped me get better at staving off blues, and so maybe somebody else will feel the same way at a time of year when the blues are running rampant.